Last Wednesday, June 19th, I went to my first House committee hearing. It’s wild for me to admit that despite living right outside of Washington, D.C. for the past 19 years and being politically active for the past seven, I had never actually been to a congressional hearing before. I was excited and filled with nervous energy, not sure what to expect.
The Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the Committee on Energy and Commerce was meeting to discuss the Department of Health and Human Services’ new regulations on Title X, the only federal program that deals with family planning. Title X provides grants to many reproductive health clinics; however, since the program began in the 70’s, statutory laws have been explicit to prevent Title X grant money from funding abortion care. In the 50 years since its inception, there has never been a single case, or any evidence to support such a case, of Title X funds being used for abortion. Despite this, the current presidential administration has implemented a harmful new anti-abortion regulation to Title X.
Dubbed the ‘domestic gag rule’, there are three main outcomes of the new regulations:
Clinics continuing to provide abortion services now that the gag rule has gone into effect will no longer receive Title X funding (even though government funds already cannot fund abortion).
As the name implies, the rule ‘gags’ health care providers receiving Title X funding from talking to patients about abortion at all. In addition to not being allowed to provide abortion care, providers receiving these funds can no longer refer patients to other abortion providers.
Former Title X recipients that continue to provide abortion services or make referrals to other abortion providers will no longer receive these funds, which are used for many family planning services for low-income folks, including birth control. This rule will cut funding to facilities like Planned Parenthood, cutting patients, especially those in low-income and rural areas, off from accessing the full spectrum of reproductive healthcare services.
These rules are a direct attack on poor communities who, for the most part, usually only have one or two clinics – if even that – accessible to them. Without Title X funding many clinics will be forced to shut down, and thousands of people, a majority from marginalized communities, will no longer have access to family planning services. Despite this, HHS cites ‘serious concerns’ over the co-mingling of funds in clinics that provide abortion services and has used this as the basis for the gag rule.
Having done an extensive research project and presentation on these Title X changes for a policy class, I was fired up and ready for whatever ridiculous arguments those supporting the gag rule would make. On the way to the hearing, we were split into two lines by security at the congressional building. On one side I stood with my fellow interns, advocates from Planned Parenthood, and other supporters of Title X. In the other line waited a group from Students for Life. The hall was crowded, we had no idea how big the hearing room would be, and I was getting antsy. Regardless of seating, I had to get in there.
Then, two things happened: the Capitol police approached our group (all wearing pink shirts) and rudely questioned if we were planning to cause a scene or stage a protest following the committee hearing. Once finally accepting – though with much skepticism – that our group had no plans to ‘disrupt’, the police assured us that we would be led into the room shortly. However, that was not the case. While waiting to be led in (and distracted in conversation), Capitol police led the group from Students for Life to another entrance and allowed them into the room first, thus filling the majority of the seats.
Squeezing into the remaining seats, we looked on as the committee hearing began – and with it, my outrage. We watched as committee members sat in front of us, looking down at their phones while they waited for their turn to speak. Listening to the HHS’ witness defend the gag rule, I could only stew in silence. The hearing was disappointing but unsurprising, with few members of the committee against the rule and even fewer with eloquent arguments. And yet I was still baffled by the lack of interest or engagement from the committee members, all quietly chatting or checking their phones throughout the hearing. I left the hearing discouraged but with new clarity: if this is the state of congressional committees, it does not surprise me that nothing gets done – and when things do, they’re usually terrible.